Albatross Classification and Evolution
The Albatross is a large species of sea-bird found throughout the southern Pacific and even into the colder Antarctic regions. There are 21 different species of Albatross found across the southern seas, but sadly 19 of the different Albatross species are said to be threatened with extinction today. The Albatross is closely related to other sea-birds including Petrels, which are all unique among Birds due to the tubular nostrils on either side of the top of their bill, meaning these Birds are often referred to as Tubenoses. The Albatross was first brought into the public spotlight with Coleridge's 1798 poem, the Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
Albatross Anatomy and Appearance
The Albatross is one of the largest Birds in the skies as the wingspan of the male Wandering Albatross can easily reach 3.5 meters or more in length, meaning that it has the largest wingspan of any Bird. The Wandering Albatross also has a body that is more than 1 meter long (including the tail), with the size of other species generally being slightly smaller. The Albatross is an easily identifiable Bird with long, narrow wings, a large head, and a long, strong bill which is hooked at the end and has sharp blades on either side to handle slippery prey. There are three toes on each of the Albatross's feet with webbed skin between each one. Unlike many other species of Bird, the Albatross has no hind toes as these sea-birds simply have no need for them.
Albatross Distribution and Habitat
All 21 different species of Albatross are mainly distributed throughout the southern Pacific, with some species found far into the Southern Ocean. Although the Albatross is not found in the northern parts of the Atlantic, a number of species of found in the north Pacific, with the Wading Albatross being the highest up, with it's nesting sites found on the Galapagos Islands. The Albatross is unique among many Birds as it is air-bound for the majority of it's life. Albatrosses spend their entire lives gliding above the waves and are known to fly thousands of miles in a very short space of time. During the breeding season, the Albatross finally returns to dry land, where they nest in large colonies on the cliffs of remote, rocky islands that are generally inside the Antarctic Tundra.
Albatross Behaviour and Lifestyle
The tapered wings of the Albatross means that it tends to glide through the air rather than flying which uses much more energy. The Albatross is known to practice a flying technique known as dynamic soaring, meaning that the Albatross makes use of the up-drafts of wind above the waves to give it extra lift, for longer periods of time, and without really doing anything. The Albatross has excellent eyesight as it sees it's prey from the sky, swooping down to snap a Fish from the surface or sometimes even diving into the water. They are known to also have an exceptional sense of smell which allows them to detect both prey and their breeding grounds, even in the dark.
Albatross Reproduction and Life Cycles
The Albatross nests in large colonies on islands, where there can be thousands of other Albatross individuals, some of which have been flying solidly for up to 7 seven years until they reach the age of sexual maturity. After a unique courtship display which involves grunting and scraping their beaks, males and females pair off to mate. The female Albatross lays just one egg that can weigh up to half a kilo, in a basic nest on the ground. The Albatross parents take it in turns to incubate the egg for 2-3 months depending on the size of the Albatross species. The Albatross parents protect and clean their chick until it is able to fly. Albatross chicks can take anywhere from 5 to 10 months to fledge, depending on the size of the Albatross species. They are very long living Birds with an average age of between 40 and 50 years old.
Albatross Diet and Prey
The Albatross is a carnivorous Bird as the diet of the Albatross solely consists of Fish and other aquatic animals. The Albatross feeds on Fish, Squid, Krill, Crabs and other Crustaceans by either diving, swooping down onto the water's surface, or from scavenging the kill from another animal. They are also known to eat both carrion and refuge that is floating on or close to the surface of the water. The excellent sight and smell of the Albatross, along with it's well-designed and razor-sharp beak, means that this animal is perfectly adapted for a life at sea. Chicks are fed by the highly nutritious yet foul smelling stomach oil of their parents until they are able to handle solid, and more slippery meals.
Albatross Predators and Threats
Due to the fact that the Albatross is so big and the fact that the Albatross spends nearly it's whole life in the safety of the sky, the Albatross has no real predators besides Humans who have hunted them in the past. The Albatross also nests in such remote places that they are safe from nearly all other animals with the exception of some Tiger Tiger Sharks who are known to lay in wait when the young Albatross chicks are learning how to fly, greedily hoping to snap up any stragglers. The interesting thing about this is that the Tiger Tiger Sharks appear to return to the same spot every year, knowing that the Albatross chicks will be practising their launching and gliding techniques, and they are therefore guaranteed an easy snack
Albatross Interesting Facts and Features
Albatrosses are known to be able to cover thousands of miles in a short space of time with the Grey-Headed Albatross being able to fly so far, with such little effort that they can complete a full circle around the Earth in just over a month. The Albatross was made famous by Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem at the end of the 1700s, which indicated that these enormous sea-birds embodied the souls of drowned sailors. This led to a great deal of superstition surrounding the hunting of the Albatross, as it was thought to be very bad luck amongst seafarers.
Albatross Relationship with Humans
An estimated 100,000 Albatrosses, of various different species, are thought to be killed every year by illegal fishing in the Southern Ocean, predominantly for Tuna. These fishermen use long fishing lines, with baited hooks which Albatross can be easily caught up in when they are simply trying to catch their supper. It is thought that the females are actually at a greater risk from these lines than the males, due to the fact that the two tend to feed in differing regions. Despite some superstition towards killing the Albatross by sailors, they were hunted quite vigorously by Humans during the 19th century for their feathers which were used to stuff pillows.
Albatross Conservation Status and Life Today
Today, 19 out of the 21 different Albatross species are listed as animals that are Endangered in their natural environments. Although the populations of the remaining two species are not quite as low, numbers are falling and both are considered to be Threatened species. The main reason for the drastic decline in Albatross numbers across the southern seas, is lone-line Tuna fishing, which these enormous sea-birds can become easily caught on.